Valerie June on Her Memphis Roots, Her Brother's Cooking, and Being Southern on Biscuits & Jam
About Biscuits & Jam: In the South, talking about food is personal. It's a way of sharing your history, your family, your culture, and yourself. Each week Sid Evans, Editor in Chief of Southern Living, sits down with celebrity musicians to hear stories of how they grew up, what inspired them, and how they've been shaped by Southern culture. Sid takes us back to some of their most cherished memories and traditions, the family meals they still think about, and their favorite places to eat on the road.
Episode 9: June 1, 2021
Valerie June split time as a kid between the rural towns of Humboldt and Jackson, Tennessee, picking crawdads and connecting to other wildlife around her. When she began making music, she would do open mic's at night while working at coffee shops or cleaning houses during the day to make ends meet. Along the way, legends began to take notice of her unique style and voice, like Booker T. Jones, the Queen of Memphis Soul - Carla Thomas and even Bob Dylan, who mentioned in an interview that Valerie is one of his favorite new artists. With a range that spans from rhythm & blues to Appalachian and bluegrass, she's even penned songs for Mavis Staples and The Blind Boys of Alabama, and a new book of poetry titled Maps for the Modern World.
On Her Memphis Favorites
"I will always call Memphis home because everything I do creatively has roots in Memphis. And even now, my first book is out and that's because of a lady I met through a Memphis connection… I really love going to Royal Studios. I have my friends over at Loudean's, which is right near Java Cabana Coffeehouse that my best friend has owned for many years. And the beauty shop is in that Copper Young area. So I love going and eating there and seeing Karen. But the number one place is Maggie's Pharm, which is this tea shop/herb shop/beauty and care shop/holistic healing shop. And I used to work there, but I still love going to Maggie's Pharm. There's nothing like it. You walk in and the scent just overtakes you and anything you need to take care of yourself, you'll find it there."
On the Cook In Her Family
"My mother is a really great cook, but my brother Jason is actually the absolute best cook in the family…So when he cooks, he dances and he gets excited... It's really fun to watch him cook. And he doesn't just cook. He owns a construction company, and will go to different places around the South so if he is working in west Tennessee, he will stop in and get the best pictures of these strawberry cakes made by ladies at a diner or pecan pies or different things like that. And I'm like, 'Where is this chocolate cake?' 'Oh, it's in Nutbush, Tennessee.'"
On the Holidays at Home
"Holidays are definitely a treat. They really are. The biggest memory of holidays, though, is Gran's yeast rolls. Because she makes the best yeast rolls. I actually sang about them on my last record. The very first song is 'Long Lonely Road' and you say, 'Pile in the church pew rows. Gran makes the best yeast rolls. gospel of stories told. Bout the one way to save your soul.'"
On Church Being Part of Her Musical Journey
"Everyone in my family sings because when you go to church, you use your voice as an instrument. And there aren't any instruments in the church…We are the chorus as we sit in the pews. There is a song leader and there's a songbook with like 900 songs in there. It's pretty thick and it's all great songs. And they'll tell you which page to turn to, and everyone sings all together… You'll hear a lot of different kinds of voices. You hear some voices that are very beautifully trained, other voices that are just old, young, happy, sad, a lot of voices. And I love that character of voices that I learn from the church. And I also love the messages of the songs that are still with me."
On Being a Southerner
"I am an African-American Southerner, and I do think about everything, the hands that worked the soil and the bodies and the growth that we are seeing in the way we relate to each other in the South. And our potential for beauty and its resilience. It is strength. It is power. It is inspiration. It is appreciation and gratitude and humility. It's just like you were born with the story, when you're Southern. You're born with the song. It's like, you're going to be born in the South? Here's your song and here's your story. So that's what it is for me. All of those words and then some."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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